New Podcast: ‘Radiant Minds: The World of Oliver Sacks’

Oliver Sacks in 2013 | Photo via Wikipedia

Like many people, I first learned about the work of neurologist Oliver Sacks from the 1990 movie Awakenings, starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. Based on his memoir about his drug experiments with catatonic patients in the 1960s, it inspired a multitude to want to learn more about the brain’s quirks, and Sacks became something of a star.

I’ve long wanted to dig into his best-selling books—especially his 2015 memoir, On the Move, even more so after he died that same year—but I haven’t until this new podcast made me realize all I’ve been missing. Radiant Minds host Indre Viskontas, a neuroscientist and opera singer, was also inspired to pursue this field by Sacks, and her work was even featured in his book Musicophilia.

She’s a trustworthy and empathetic guide for this complex and fascinating journey “to tell the story of the human brain, one person at a time.” The way neurodiversity is handled — from case studies on Tourette syndrome to the complexities of memory and trauma — helped me appreciate the choices people have to make between treating their condition and potentially losing access to something fundamental to who they are. I found myself enthralled — just don’t start self-diagnosing!

5 books to get you started:


The book that started it all: Sacks’ 1973 non-fiction book recounts the life histories of those who had been victims of the 1920s encephalitis lethargica epidemic. Sacks chronicles his efforts in the late 1960s to help these patients at the Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, New York.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

Perhaps Dr. Sacks’ most popular book, it was even adapted into an opera by composer Michael Nyman. As the description explains: “If a man has lost a leg or an eye, he knows he has lost a leg or an eye; but if he has lost a self — himself — he cannot know it, because he is no longer there to know it. Dr. Oliver Sacks recounts the stories of patients struggling to adapt to often bizarre worlds of neurological disorder. Here are people who can no longer recognize everyday objects or those they love; who are stricken with violent tics or shout involuntary obscenities; who have been dismissed as autistic or retarded, yet are gifted with uncanny artistic or mathematical talents. If inconceivably strange, these brilliant tales illuminate what it means to be human.”

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

Sacks explored the place music occupies in the brain and how it affects the human condition. It is explored at length in an episode of the Radiant Minds podcast, including a follow up conversation with the man struck by lightning who suddenly desired to become a pianist at the age of 42. Other “musical misalignments” in the book include: “an entire group of children with Williams syndrome, who are hypermusical from birth; people with ‘amusia,’ to whom a symphony sounds like the clattering of pots and pans; and a man whose memory spans only seven seconds-for everything but music…”

The Mind’s Eye

After Musicophilia, Sacks investigated the myriad ways in which we experience the visual world. As before, he uses vivid case studies to explore various phenomena, including himself. As the book description explains: “One day in late 2005, Sacks became aware of a dazzling, flashing light in one part of his visual field; it was not the familiar migraine aura he had experienced since childhood, and just two days later a malignant tumor in one eye was diagnosed. … [H]e chronicled the experience of living with cancer, recording both the effects of the tumor itself, and radiation therapy. In turning himself into a case history, Sacks has given us perhaps his most intimate, impressive and insightful (no pun intended) book yet.”


Humans have long-sought life-changing visions, and Sacks explores why and how in this book by weaving “together stories of his patients and of his own mind-altering experiences to illuminate what hallucinations tell us about the organization and structure of our brains, how they have influenced every culture’s folklore and art, and why the potential for hallucination is present in us all, a vital part of the human condition.”

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